New coronavirus cases seem to be emerging as schools return across the country. A majority of higher education institutions start back in the classroom today, while several universities changed reopening plans within the first week. Large schools like Notre Dame, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Michigan State all renegotiated opening plans this past week after COVID outbreaks in the student population.
Many school districts across the country face issues regarding preparation and safety with staggered openings. At the beginning of August, Georgia’s largest school district—Gwinnett County Public Schools—which serves 180,000 students, returned only to find 260 employees test positive for the virus in the days following. The district moved to on-line learning, but may bring some students back.
While PRNEWS focused on communicating school reopenings earlier this month, it now seems that most communicators need to have a plan for closing as well. We talked with two communicators in education, Kate Torok, director of marketing and communications at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y. and Lori Perlow, communications manager for Camden County Educational Services Commission in New Jersey, to see how they’ve been strategizing for closing situations.
PRNEWS: How do you decide on a school closure? Who is involved? Who are the stakeholders?
Kate Torok: There are a variety of factors that we will take into account should we be in a situation where we need to consider another campus shutdown. We continue to work closely with our local health department and hospital system partner to make the best decision for all of our stakeholders— students, employees, families of our students, and the community at large.
Lori Perlow: Data regarding positive cases is the highest concern. Some districts have a high number of teachers indicating that they can’t return to work due to underlying health issues or childcare issues (if their children are engaged in remote learning). Other considerations include access to COVID test kits (some healthcare systems have limited supplies) and the timely delivery of PPE and cleaning supplies. Environmental concerns regarding older school buildings with poor ventilation is another factor. Proper airflow and ventilation is important when gathering inside.
PRNEWS: How do you communicate the news to students? Is there a plan b? What will they do if they have to leave campus or close the buildings?
Torok: In the spring when we closed campus, our Emergency Response Team was activated and our communications became more regular. We use a system called RAVE in these emergency situations and communicate more frequent updates/directives via text/email/phone call. We also created an email address specific to the COVID closure so that we could better manage the volume of questions and had a triage process in place to provide answers quickly.
Perlow: Districts are planning hybrid models knowing that there is a good chance that they’ll need to quickly shift to full remote learning. In N.J., the governor approved funds to help schools close the digital divide. The digital divide presents two issues: access to a device and access to the internet. The Camden County Educational Services Commission offers N.J. school districts the opportunity to purchase internet services for their students. Internet service is the new #2 pencil. Chromebooks are quickly replacing notebooks. School districts that choose to step up their game when it comes to learning management systems will have an easier time with this shift.
PRNEWS: How do you switch to all-virtual as a district/school? How can this be communicated to teachers/staff/parents?
Perlow: An unanticipated switch would be communicated like any other crisis communication. Many districts are front-loading professional development time before students return to address the need for more training on remote learning practices.
Torok: This spring, when it became clear that the state was headed for a shutdown, and we made the announcement that campus would close, residential students had three days to vacate campus, and we took a pause week for faculty and students to prepare to adjust to online instruction. We took the same week to de-densify the rest of campus, sending the majority of our employees to work from home until further notice. In addition, our Office of Information Technology used that week to equip individuals with technology needs and other staff provided guidance for faculty in best practices for online teaching. We had regularized communication leading up to the closure, during the pause week, and throughout the remainder of the semester.
PRNEWS: How do you handle stakeholder questions or the possibility of outrage?
Perlow: The amount of pressure that currently rests on the shoulders of our nation’s K-12 superintendents is unimaginable. Nobody wants to be responsible for a decision that can lead to an employee or student becoming sick or possibly dying. Superintendents across the country led their employees, parents and students through what will likely be the most historical event to impact our educational system and they keep on going. Trust is a big factor now. If decisions are made wisely and with community input, employees and parents will find it easier to have trust in their district leadership, even if they disagree with the decision.
Torok: Our approach has been transparent and honest, and our pledge to our campus community has been to communicate updates as we know them. In a world of uncertainty, we want to always be able to provide answers that are certain. If plans are still being developed, or we don’t have an answer to a specific question, that is what we tell folks.
PRNEWS: When/how do you decide to reconvene?
Torok: The college president constituted a Campus Reopening Task Force composed of nearly 60 members of the campus community who worked tirelessly from May to mid-August on our Campus Reopening and Operations Plan. Early on, we established our two guiding principles: the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff; and delivering the Fisher academic experience that students and faculty value while maximizing in-person instruction. We announced our new academic calendar in mid-June (shifting ahead by two weeks to adjust the end of the semester to align with the Thanksgiving break), and based on input from our campus community, namely students, we worked to plan to return to an on-ground environment.
Upon opening, the Task Force will transition into a monitoring team that will meet daily to ascertain how we are doing and determine if operations must shift or educational communication efforts should increase.
PRNEWS: How are you planning to handle possible national media attention in response to a closure?
Perlow: Smart, proactive decision-making coupled with a clear and concise communication plan can help minimize negative media attention. We may not be able to control a community spread of the virus, but we can control the response should one occur.
Schools are generally known to be safe places for learning. The thought of students or teachers having to enter a building which may in turn increase the risk for illness or death is anticlimactic. As a result, the entire nation is wondering whether or not it’s actually safe to open schools. Time will tell.
Nicole Schuman is a reporter for PRNEWS. Follow her: @buffalogal